The anarchic situation in the Sinai flourished following the 1979 Camp David peace accords which stipulated a minimised military presence in the region. The absence of security forces and the difficult socio-economic situation facing the Bedouin population led to the proliferation of illicit activities such as drug dealing, human trafficking and arms smuggling.
There has been little investment in the northern part of the Peninsula, as most of the funds coming from the central government were directed at the southern tourist towns along the coast of the Red Sea. Local tribes continued to complain about marginalisation and neglect by successive governments, which have overlooked the livelihood of its Bedouin population, composed of 200,000 people and over 30 major tribes.
Following the popular uprising of 2011, the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula deteriorated further. The increased political and economic grievances of the Bedouin population, combined with an influx of weaponry, led to violent acts against the state apparatus. While various groups targeted government buildings, bombed gas pipelines, and blocked roads, the lack of governance started attracting a number of more organised jihadists associated with al-Qaeda and seeking to target Israel.
However, it was only after the military overthrew President Morsi in July 2013 that a full-scale insurgency against Egyptian forces sprang to life, and Sinai became another jihadi theatre. The reinstatement and consolidation of a military regime, viewed by many in Sinai as despotic, illegitimate, and collaborating with Israel, has been used as a pretext for this escalation. Sinai thus became a haven for militants when the splintered and armed Bedouin population and al-Qaeda affiliated militants discovered a mutual, deeply entrenched distrust for the Egyptian military and a desire to fundamentally undermine its presence in Sinai.
This does not mean that Sinai-based militants are necessarily allied with ex-President Morsi, a link the Egyptian government has repeatedly attempted to establish. President Morsi was welcomed by some because his rule represented a change towards appeasement from the military’s hard-line approach. Others, however, point to the fact that it was merely a change of tone, since he authorised the military’s Operation Eagle in August in response to the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers two weeks after he took office. Nevertheless, the dispute over how to handle such incidents was a major point of contention between the military and Morsi, as the former believed the latter was either incapable or unwilling to address the growing threat of terrorism emanating from Sinai after he vetoed additional military operations and released radical Islamists from prison.
Although militants tended to operate in small cells, they have recently formed more coherent groups such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem. They are predominantly composed of radicalised Bedouins joined by emboldened radical Islamists, in addition to foreign jihadists, which are recruited by jihadist organisations loosely affiliated to al-Qaeda. They have collectively claimed a number of attacks, including an attempted assassination of the interior minister in Cairo and a number of attacks from Sinai into Israel that killed several Israeli civilians and soldiers.
Although the Egyptian counter-insurgency campaign in Sinai is technically a violation of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel through the presence of Egyptian security forces there, Israel has remained relatively supportive of the crackdown, citing mutual interests. There was initial hesitation when the Egyptian military increased troops in Sinai without consulting Israel in August 2012, but the Israeli defence minister eventually approved the Egyptian military’s requests to increase total troop count and deploy fighter jets and attack helicopters. Israel has also built a wall on the Sinai border to prevent cross-border attacks and brought a sixth Iron Dome anti-missile battery online to boost air-defence and security in Eilat.